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South Jersey farmers say Americans need to start buying local produce or they won’t survive

Many farmers in South Jersey say they may not make it to 2023.

Farmer James Rambo is photographed near one of his tomato fields in Glassboro. Farmers in South Jersey say it's costing them more to produce crops than sell them.
Farmer James Rambo is photographed near one of his tomato fields in Glassboro. Farmers in South Jersey say it's costing them more to produce crops than sell them.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

One farmer stood in a muddy field in Gloucester County, wondering if he could weather the year. A large vegetable grower in Salem County said his future in farming was about “50/50″ at the moment.

In Cumberland County, where the Sheppard family has lived for nearly 350 years, longtime farmer Tom Sheppard is selling off 640 of his 1,500 tillable acres to stop the bleeding.

“When you lose $1 million a year, it’s not fun anymore,” said Sheppard, 68.

The number of working farms has gone down, steadily, for nearly a century in the United States. There were 6.8 million farms in the country in 1935, according to the USDA, and 2.01 million in 2021. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture, there were an estimated 52,700 farms covering 7.3 million acres in Pennsylvania in 2021. The state has lost thousands of farms since 2010. New Jersey has 9,900 farms, down from 10,300 in 2009.

Meanwhile, the population increases, the demand for food along with it. Farmers lamenting the cost of supplies and fluctuating prices is nothing new, but in 2022, with staggering gasoline prices, supply-chain issues, increases in wages, fertilizer, and even cardboard, plus an increased competition beyond U.S. borders, the specter of “For Sale” signs is haunting the Garden State.

“This year, the threat is real,” said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. “They are facing some extraordinary and unprecedented costs.”

American farmers vs. the rest of the world

In May, some asparagus growers in New Jersey didn’t harvest their crop after the price that retailers were willing to pay dropped below the cost to produce it. Farmers say the drop happened just after Mother’s Day. When imports of flowers from Peru and Mexico fell off after the holiday, growers there began shipping more asparagus, which dropped prices.

Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent in Gloucester County and professor with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, posted a photo on Facebook of an unharvested asparagus field in the midst of the plummeting market and wrote a dire warning about the state of farming. Her post has been shared nearly 3,000 times.

“We now import nearly 50 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Michelle Infante-Casella

“If this continues, the American farm will be no more,” Infante-Casella wrote. “Then Americans will become even more dependent on foreign food. We now import nearly 50 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Reversing any of this is not simple. The mechanics of capitalism require brokers and large grocery and big box stores to find the cheapest product, to make the most profit. Many farmers say the easiest solution is for more consumers to demand that their fruits and vegetables are local. Rising inflation costs make that easier said than done.

“These big box stores don’t want to play nice with local farmers,” said James Rambo, a fourth-generation farmer in Glassboro, Gloucester County.

Rambo said he had contemplated not farming his 550 acres this year — and likely ever again — but had already signed contracts to bring in temporary agricultural workers on H2A worker visas. He said many of those workers make less than $9 a day in Peru and Mexico. He is required to pay $15.54 an hour, along with housing and transportation. That discrepancy helps those countries keep product costs lower.

“Take squash, for example,” he said. “The chain stores sell them anywhere from $1.49 a pound to $2 a pound. Us farmers last week were getting anywhere from $3 to $6 a box for a 20-pound box.”

Rambo, who mainly grows tomatoes and bell peppers, said it costs local farmers approximately $8.50 to produce a box of squash.

“That’s the truth, and that math doesn’t work for farmers,” he said. “Farmers get told what they’re getting paid.”

Sheppard, who grows asparagus and other vegetables in Cumberland County, said the cost of fertilizer is up “100 percent” and agreed with Rambo that farmers can’t set their own prices.

“All of our costs are up. Everything,” he said. “But if I tell a buyer my prices got to be 25% more than last year, they say we’re crazy and they go elsewhere.”

Can consumers make the difference?

In Salem County, New Jersey’s most rural county, Brian Porch grows a little bit of everything at his 175-acre farm in Pedricktown. He’s the president of the county’s board of agriculture and also believes consumers can drive the market for locally grown products. Elected officials have tried to help, he said. Porch has spoken to State Sen. Ed Durr and his predecessor, Steve Sweeney, passed a bill in 2021 that required products labeled “local” to be made or grown in New Jersey.

“For better or worse, this is all about capitalism,” he said. “This has to change at the consumer level, with more people demanding American produce.”

Furey, in a piece he cowrote for Ag Matters, said some farmers are trying to cut out middle men and sell directly to the public through farmers markets and pick-your-own options. Infante-Casella believes it will be difficult to break consumer spending habits, given the economy.

“For better or worse, this is all about capitalism.”

Brian Porch

“The answer is there is no good answer because Americans are used to paying for cheap food, but to keep the American farmer, we’re going to have to pay more,” she said. “You don’t want to depend on the rest of the world for food.”

Rambo, whose farmland sits just beyond an ever-expanding Rowan University and new housing developments, said there’s always an option to cash out on his land.

“When things are going well, no farmer thinks about selling. This is in our blood,” he said. “I put 102 hours in last week and I don’t mind that. I just want to make a few bucks and be a farmer. "